Modest award winner
the pace in micro design
(Sinclair User, August 1982)
Claudia Cooke talks to Rick
Dickinson, Sinclair industrial designer, who won a Design
Council award for the ZX-81.
AWARD-WINNING industrial designer
Rick Dickinson is modest about his achievements, which so
far include the ZX-81,
for which he won a Design Council award, and the Spectrum.
"I don't think I have ever been delighted with anything
I have done", says this blond, 26-year-old prodigy. "There
always seems to be room for improvement".
Dickinson is a meticulous worker and while both the ZX-81
and the Spectrum are selling beyond all expectations, he adds:
"I would never let anything go to production unless I
was happy with it".
Graduating from the Newcastle Polytechnic pioneering industrial
design course, Dickinson and his classmates are equipped,
theoretically, to design anything "from knives and forks
to ocean tankers".
Dickinson produced items as diverse as a chain saw and a
road tanker during his first year as a qualified industrial
designer, which he spent freelancing in Wales.
He had already spent some time working for Clive Sinclair
while he was studying for his degree and it was not long before
he was absorbed as a full-time member of staff and the company's'
sole industrial designer. He is responsible for the appearance
of Sinclair products down to the layout of the components
inside and the pattern of information on the keyboards. His
membrane keyboard for the ZX-81 was revolutionary and largely
responsible for the low retail price of the product.
Dickinson has learned that price is the ultimate justification
and on all his designs he has to bear in mind the cost factor
as well as the straightforward appearance of any item.
The membrane keyboard was a great success and Sinclair has
had to cope with numerous pirate copies since its inception
but, as with everything, it had its disadvantages. Its main
disadvantage was its inability to register touch. To ensure
you have a response it is necessary to look at the screen
- there is no reassuring click when you touch each key.
For the Spectrum, Dickinson has returned to a raised keyboard
but again he has produced a first by making it from rubber.
He says: "I like the Spectrum much more than the ZX-81.
It was much quicker to design but much more complicated. It
is a step upmarket and I was really trying hard for a super-smart
machine. It is not for quite the same amateur market".
The process of design is a long one. Normally it begins when
Clive Sinclair outlines his idea to Dickinson, including his
demands about size. "He will resolve in his own mind
the specifications and he will always say how small it has
to be. I think how can it be that small? Yet he is always
right in the end and we produce something which seemed impossible
to me in the beginning".
Armed with his brief, Dickinson then spends a few days with
his sketchbook, exploring ideas, but he likes to begin work
in three dimensions as quickly as possible and is soon modelling
in Perspex or plasticine.
The next stage is to produce the finished model in Perspex
but obviously it has no components inside - it is produced
as a solid block.
That model is detailed, even down to the graphics which Dickinson
has painted on. Layout of the interior follows, with the designer
using all his powers of logic to ensure that each component
is in the best possible place. Perhaps the most difficult
part is the keyboard. Dickinson says: "We spent a great
deal of time on that. It is the only interface between the
user and the product and it has to be right. We were trying
also to cram on more information than anyone had ever done.
I believe that form should follow function".
Design of the ZX-81 took about six months in all. The Spectrum
was quicker but with all his major projects Dickinson also
has to set aside time for add-ons to existing computers -
the work is never finished. His main project now is the flat-tube
TV, expected to be launched later this year.
His biggest problem with that is that Sinclair has already
been working on it for some time. Normally he is briefed at
the same time as the electronic engineers but this time the
inside is already finished. It is also another first, which
means Dickinson cannot research by looking at existing products
in the field.
"That is the most exciting thing with this company,
you know; many products are the first of their type, so you
are really in on something new".
Dickinson is content with his life at the moment in every
way. At school he liked the sciences and the arts and his
job ensures that he remains involved in both. He spent one
year on a foundation course at art college at Grimsby before
starting to read for his degree and feels the experience was
invaluable. He is happy with his work at Sinclair. When he
started almost three years ago the staff numbered five. Today
it is 30 and the company is going from strength to strength,
crushing the effects of the recession as it marches on.
"We all work very closely, very much as a team. Most
of the information is in people's heads. There is no time
to be formal and put it down on paper. It is a good atmosphere
in which to work".
For this award-winning Yorkshireman, it abounds with opportunity,
too. He has already entered the Spectrum for this year's Design
Council awards and on his drawing board are the initial stages
of the flat-tube TV - another first, and possibly another